Sometimes we think that because someone hasn’t got much to say that they must not have a story to tell. Quite the opposite. Sometimes those who stay quiet have very loud stories. Stories that need to be told.
My dad is not a man of many words, so he doesn’t brag or share his story unless he’s asked. And even then, I, who have asked, have only gotten the full story through 32 years of stitching together small details, open conversations, short answers, and candid retellings.
I am the talker that my dad is not. But telling this story has brought me a lot of anxiety. How do you tell a story that changed not only one life but singlehandedly altered the life of a whole family? How do you tell a story so centered around who you are that it has inspired you from childhood to write a book about your family’s history? How do you start that story and do it justice?
Well, I guess, you turn up the Old School Cuban playlist on your iTunes (What? Not everyone has a Cuban playlist?) and think Cuban dicho, Andando se quita el frio (Moving will keep you warm) and get moving.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
For many of us, we could probably, mas o menos (more or less), point to a time in our life: an age, a series of events, an era when our lives, our path, entirely changed its course. But how many of us could pinpoint to a specific day and say This day. This solitary, single day was the day that altered my life, and my family’s life forever.
November 11, 1966 was my dad’s day
In order to tell the story as accurately as I can and for you to fully understand my father’s state of mind, it is important to fill in some of the gaps with background information from time to time.
46 years ago this week, on a Friday night at 7:00, when many people are deciding what party top to wear out dancing or what bar to meet their friends at for a drink, my dad was preparing to leave his country of Cuba for the rest of his life. He would leave Cuba, his home, and his mother only 20 days after turning 16 years old.
My father, a 16-year-old boy in Cuba, was turning the legal age to be involuntarily recruited to the servicio militar obligatorio (obligatory military service). What this meant wasn’t that you had to serve but that you must register, be there and be ready to serve. What this really meant was that at 16 you weren’t going nowhere. You could kiss any hope of leaving the country for the next decade goodbye. You were now in the military’s service until you were 27. For my dad, many of his relatives were defecting or had already defected but his age now made him an anchor. Cuba would never let him leave and my grandmother would never leave without him.
I can only imagine that to make the decision my dad made, he felt like he had to be faced with no other choice at all because if you know my dad, you know that he ain’t no kind of military man (a chapter in the book I am writing).
In Cuba, each neighborhood or block had a vigilante known as the Comittees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in charge of “guarding communism’s enemies.” I’ve heard people tell stories of playing American music quietly in fear of it being reported or throwing the scraps of their meal away in a distant garbage away from their house to avoid the CDR knowing what they ate for dinner for fear of being asked where they got that “extra” steak from. People learned to keep their doors closed and their mouths closed even tighter. Anything you said could be used against you and you never knew who you were talking to.
On the afternoon of the 11th, my father along with 2 other companions, went to the house of their fourth companion where they would begin their escape. They arrived one by one because coming as a group might cause rised suspicion with the neighborhood CDR and the last thing they needed was attention.
My dad was from Caimanera, a small fishing town in the province of Guantánamo that in this instance had many perks of being close to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. The base was so close that if you lived in Caimanera, it was said that you were either a fisherman or a Base man.
Half of his friend’s house was perched right over the water. By lifting the floor boards of the house, the boys would have easy access to the Bay without being noticed by anyone. Their plan was to stay in the house until the evening, when the sky was dark and the tide was high and then make a run for it a swim for it.
But the plan become a bit hairy when their friend’s unknowing father came home. The boys had to hide under a bed waiting very still and in silence until he left again. Like I said before, you learned to keep your door closed tight and your mouth tighter. I can’t say if they didn’t tell his father for fear of being told on or just fear of not letting them go. My father hadn’t told my grandmother either. He knew she would fight him on it and that she had no chance of convincing him out of it. So he told his great aunt, Concha with specific instructions:
You can’t tell her that I am leaving until after I have left. In the evening, she will start to ask around for me and wonder where I am. Don’t let her ask to many questions or get too worried. It will only call attention to our absence. When she starts to ask if you’ve seen Rafelito, you can tell her then that I am gone.
As he sat and waited to leave, I wonder what he thought about. Was he sad that he’d never be back to his home? Was he scared to leave his mother? I’m 32 years old and still grow a lump in my throat whenever I think of leaving my mother. And I know that I’ll see her in a few months time at the most. Like all people that left Cuba in this era, when you left, you left with a small suitcase and for good, not knowing when or if ever you’d ever see these people again.
Did he think about not going? He could have changed his mind at any time. There was a fifth companion to the story that had decided at the last minute not to go. I wonder if companion 5 ever regretted that decision. My mom shrugs it off to my father’s age. You have to do crazy things like that when you’re young and not thinking because once you get older and think about consequences you make very different decisions.
After all 16 year old courage is quite different than 30 year old courage because the list of consequences has exponentially grown.
But I don’t know. My dad never having been a man of many words has always been a man of action. He doesn’t talk, he does. He doesn’t argue, he reacts. And his 16-year old mind, as absent to consequence as it might have been, had enough sense to intelligently plan an escape armed with both the knowledge he needed and the courage on his back.
He knew what time of night was the right time of night to leave. Being from a fishing village, he knew the water. He was practically born in it. He was a natural swimmer. A strong swimmer. Often times, scaring me as a kid how far in the ocean he could swim out. He was as much a fish as the ones the fishermen caught. When you are from a fishing town, you know when the tide will be at its highest. You know at what time during high tide you would have the right amount of ebb and flow in the water where your swimming would be minimal and floating with only your face to the moon would be at its most possible. Swimming had to be minimal because you couldn’t be seen or you’d risk getting shot at.
Many other kids, from Havana, the capital, had come to Caimanera attempting the same plan and had died not knowing how to follow the ebb and flow of the channel, not knowing that if you made one mistake and got caught in the current at the wrong time, at a time when the water was too strong you would be washed out to the sea and have no chance of making it back. Being from Caimanera allowed my father the inside knowledge of knowing these things. He knew the Coast Guards were watching but he also knew that on that specific night two of the Coast Guard boats were broken allowing for less guards on duty, less eyes to find you.
“You had to know the area,” my father says simply.
When the time came, my father and his companions, lifted the floor boards of the house and one by one dropped themselves into the water like sinking rocks.
Was he scared? Did he know he’d make it? Did he even have time to think about these things?
They bobbed in the water for only a moment before beginning their 4 mile journey. They had to be smart. When do we swim? When do we float? And when I say float, I remind you that I don’t mean relaxingly with a noodle or even on your back, legs and arms stretched out to all four corners. The purpose of floating here was only to breathe, keeping only your face above water. Everything else had to be quietly working underwater, like a duck, steady and still up top, legs paddling like an engine below. Minimal movement. No talking.
Just thinking about it now makes me feel suffocated. I don’t even like floating on my back in a pool.
Once they were floating in the open water, faces to the moon, with guards patrolling, they couldn’t look around or call out to “fulano” (Cuban slang word used frequently meaning so-and-so, referring to a person.) to make sure they were together. They had to keep quiet and keep calm on their own path, and, I imagine, have enough faith in each other to not cause a scene or call attention to the area if they were overtaken by fear of being a bobbing apple in an 12 by 6 mile barrel or fear of being swept out to the ocean.
“Floating wit onlee yoor neck abof de water for tooh miyals ees a laht harder den you tink,” my dad said once. “Yoor neck stars tooh cramp but you can’ moof. The floating was mush harder den sweemin.”
I remember when my dad had said that and thinking at that moment how that was something I would have never thought about before. Floating always seemed like something people did to relax. But when you’re doing it to survive and without being able to make sudden movements it becomes a different thing entirely… and two miles?!
Four miles doesn’t seem like a long distance to me because I’m usually traveling it by car. But when you’re swimming two miles and floating face above water for two miles not able to kick or make noise of flail your hands for the lifeguard to save you with his little doughnut because, quite simply, your life depended on it, four miles, heck, two miles becomes a very looooong distance to travel.
But I guess you consider the alternative…
Knowing that all they needed to do was touch American soil, in this case, the Naval Base in Guantánamo, and they would be free was enough to keep them on course and focused on the end in sight.
They knew that there was a light at the Base that lit up when anyone arrived, alerting the officers that someone was approaching. They were expecting it. But what they did not expect when they arrived was that the light would not be working. Instead, they heard a truck full of screaming guards roll by with the sound of rattling guns. They feared the worst. They had been caught.
Well, at least that’s what they thought they heard.
“The fearful mind is a funny thing,” my mom says when she tells me this part of the story, “It sees and hears what it wants.” What they actually heard was a truck full of loudly talking Cubans roll by with the sound of drums. In my father’s group’s scared shitless defense, lots of Cubans in one place are known to sound like they’re arguing and screaming when in fact they’re just talking loudly to one another.
They had gotten to the base, all of them, and were taken in by the U.S. officers to eat and sleep for the night. Tomorrow the next step of his journey to the United States would continue…
I think sometimes he doesn’t want to remember. Or sometimes he really does think it was the most natural thing there was because for him there was no other decision to make.
My dad’s decision trickled down years later. He would declare his mother, who because she lived in Caimanera, a small town, was stuck there for four years. That’s the problem with small towns, I’ve heard; everyone knew what had happened and so they didn’t openly make it difficult for her to leave but difficult enough to take four years. My dad would then also declare his father and his half brothers and sisters who would also eventually make it to the United States.
My Uncle Joe, not a man of little words, will at almost every family party, have a few drinks and talk about his brother, the hero, with excessive pride. He’ll retell the story always adding how “None of this,” drink held high to the ceiling and cheersing the family, “would be possible without Rafelito.” How “none of us would be here had he not done what he did.” As my Uncle ends with, “That takes balls, man.” I look at my father in these moments.
Still humble. Still little words.
Still not knowing what the rest of us know. Because maybe he doesn’t have the words to say it, but I do (and so does Uncle Joe)… not everyone is capable of that kind of courage.
And that is what makes a hero.